31 May 2014

A Tale of Two Races

It was the best of races, it was the worst of races… And no, I can’t fool you; while I consider myself reasonably well read, I have not read Dickens. But this past week, that theme wouldn’t leave me as I considered the racing news that recently drizzled in.

Often something exceptional – either good or bad – stands on its own and screams its exceptionality to the world, but when both exceptionally good and bad appear at the same time, the contrast can’t be ignored. And that’s what came about recently. News arrived about two races, either of which would have made me stand up and take note due to their noteworthy status, but they arrived within days of each other, and their noteworthiness ran in opposite directions. These two races made me re-examine the question of what constitutes a race in our beloved sport: When does a race cease to be a race and simply become a vehicle for some other agenda?

Consider what I’ll call Race L, a ten kilometer event aimed at both competitive runners (yes, there is prize money) and recreational runners (yes, there are shirts). Early bird registrants were welcomed at the whopping fee of ten bucks, a fee which rises by five bucks tonight to a mere fifteen, and hops up another five per month till the worst-case scenario of thirty bucks on race day.

Then consider what I’ll call Race A, is a five kilometer event aimed squarely at recreational runners (yes, besides shirts, there are medals for all finishers – in a five-K). Early registration thudded on the table at forty bucks. And it too went up tonight, though it’s not yet clear how much. Yikes.

First the punchline, then back to the details. I stood up and publicly said, to the effect, “What, are you kidding me?” and got more than one person good and mad at me for doing so. I don’t regret it. I’ll say it again. What, are you kidding me? Forty bucks – and rising – for a five-K?

I’ve railed in the past about for-profit event promoters and fad races (see this post, which though two years old, recently received a great reader comment!). Both of these genres aim to suck P.T. Barnum’s favorite audience to pay large amounts of money for overpriced or overproduced (or both) events teetering on, and often falling into, the category of entertainment. I usually fall back on the saving grace that at least the participants are being physically active rather than just going to the mall, but even that’s slipping away with events that boast that they won’t time you, and in exchange, you don’t really have to run. As if to taunt me, yet another appeared in my inbox this week, another variation on the color run thing – or in short, an opportunity to pay someone money in exchange for them throwing crap at you. Old P.T. was right, there’s one born every minute.

As disturbing as this trend is, that’s not my point tonight. My target is instead the charity gala ball run. My target is the attitude that runners constitute an ATM, a ready source for cash. My target is that far too many “race” events really aren’t held for the purpose of holding a race at all. Hypocrite Alert: I’ve helped out at charity gala ball runs. In and of themselves, they’re not evil. But ask yourself two simple questions: Would you go down to the town civic hall and shell out ten or fifteen bucks for a spaghetti supper to benefit XYZ cause? I’ll bet you would. Now, would you go to that same hall for a thousand-dollar-a-plate dinner for that same cause? Well, would you?

In the first case, it probably wouldn’t matter to you what the cause was, so long as it wasn’t the Society for the Advancement of Axe-Murderers. You’re getting a fair deal, you’ll probably see your friends and have a good time, and even if you could have boiled up that spaghetti at home for three bucks for the entire family, you’ll walk away happy. In the second case, if you’re passionate about the charity and you’ve got that kind of cash, you might do it. But if you’re ambivalent, you’re probably absent. And you might find yourself rather irritated if you’re pressured to ante up.

Now, a thousand bucks a plate is a lot of coin, so that’s an easy call. But where’s your limit? Five hundred? One hundred? Fifty? Or start at the other end. Ten bucks for a plate of spaghetti is easy. What about fifteen? Thirty? Fifty? At what point does the price of admission shift you over from a feeling you’re getting value from the event while adding on a feel-good for helping the charity du jour, to knowing that you’re making a donation, and that the event is only secondary?

Translate this to racing. Plenty of races benefit a charity – in fact, it’s fair to say most do (even big for-profits which do lip service to charity while pocketing the rest, but that’s a different topic). There’s nothing wrong with holding an event that delivers value to the participants and ending up with a pile of money which the organizing team uses to do good. That’s noble. But at what point does the price of admission shift you over from a feeling you’re getting value from the event while adding on a feel-good for helping the charity du jour, to knowing that you’re making a donation, and that the event is only secondary?

When is it a race that raises money? When does it become a donation that’s got a race pasted to the side to gather donors? When it crosses that limit, I’d suggest that if you’re passionate about the charity and you’ve got that kind of cash, you might do it. But if you’re ambivalent, you’re probably absent. And you might find yourself rather irritated if you’re pressured to ante up.

I’m repeating myself intentionally to make a point. Races like “Race A” have, in my view, crossed that line. Race A is a donation with a race tacked on the side. This is, in my view, a bad trend in our sport, and it’s not just Race A. In the last year, I’ve shunted aside multiple requests for my advisory services from groups who want to raise money and think that a race is the perfect vehicle.

Enough! We runners are not cash dispensers! We are runners first. We are willing to put out reasonable cash for a good race. And it’s not the absolute amount that makes the difference. We all go to inexpensive races and we all go to pricey ones as well. We expect a big city marathon to cost a lot because it does cost a lot to put it on. And to some extent, race bling can compensate for race price, if it is relevant and useful bling. Sorry guys, a medal for a five-K is useless.

To make it worse in the case of Race A, the heat is on. My local club, which selected this race for its race series (innocently enough before its absurd price was announced) is now applying that pressure. Show the flag. Ante up. Support the cause!

Enough again! I joined this club to run, not to be told what charities I should support. I don’t mind being asked, but I do mind being pressured. Further, I find it a really bad idea for my club to be promoting this bad trend in the sport. And finally, I absolutely mind being told that I shouldn’t raise my voice in protest. Sorry, you can’t force my acquiescence or my silence.

I have no objection to the charity in question. It’s a worthy cause. And if I decide to support it, I’ll write them a check (and get a tax deduction in the process, something I don’t get for an overpriced race). But I won’t support further turning the concept of a race into a cash machine.

Thankfully, I can vote with my wallet and my feet, and I have a choice. So let’s go back to Race L. In fact, before I hold this race up as a paragon of virtue, let me remove the mystique of anonymity from it: it is the Level Renner 10K, slated for this August. The irony here is that in a way, this could even be classed as a for-profit race. The guys putting it together publish Level Renner, an excellent online running magazine (yes, that’s the correct spelling, and no, I don’t know its origin). I don’t know if they actually succeed in making much money, but it’s clearly a business. Thus they further prove that what’s important is the motivation and the attitude of the people behind the event. Whereas many for-profits are out to maximize that profit, and events like Race A strongly resemble charity gala balls with runs tacked on the side, these guys are runners and simply want to put on a great race for runners. Period. Their web site says it better than I ever could:

The Level Renner Road Race 10k was born out of the desire to provide an excellent racing experience for competitive and recreational runners alike. For competitive runners, this race is first and foremost a competition and the LRRR 10k is determined to give its regional and elite athletes the best experience possible and the recognition that they deserve. This event will not be a carnival with the race as an afterthought. The race and the competition are the focal point. For recreational runners, our goal is to inspire and motivate you to give your best effort. We want to provide you with an outstanding racing experience. As such, The LVL10K is a USATF sanctioned event.

I love the part about it not being a carnival. They speak to me. And when I thought of writing this column, I spoke to them to get a little more insight into their thinking. Their message is simply refreshing:

In short, we want the road race to be about the race. How novel of us, right? I was at a race recently where they forgot to announce the winners. That is unacceptable. So, we decided to create a race that focuses on the runner. We want to provide an excellent racing experience without the price gouging. Last year if you registered in May, you got a shirt (and more) and a timed event on a wheel-measured course for $10, plus we had 75 raffle prizes in addition to the ~$1500 prize purse, and we gave out Top Finisher pint glasses to the top three in each age group. As you can imagine, we didn't really give a hoot about a financial structure. Making money was not the goal (how refreshing). Putting on a marquee event for runners by runners was.

It was the best of races, it was the worst of races… You can cast your vote for a donation with a race tacked on the side and spend forty bucks (and more, shortly) for a five K with a finisher medal (and a “Finish Time keepsake receipt” – sorry, I just couldn’t resist pointing that one out), or you can cast your vote for a real race targeted at providing the best experience for runners, fast and slow, for a reasonable price. I don’t even see that as a question.

Your choice matters. It sends a message and determines what you will see in the future. What do you want your sport to become? Think before you register.


  1. Thanks for writing this post. I think that you are in the silent majority. Let's hope the Level Renner 10K is supported by the local running community and gets a great turn out!

  2. Disclaimer: I love this stuff. Not being a stranger myself to controversy in the running world, it's my own flawed belief that we'd all be a lot better off in bringing these types of issues to the forefront instead of just sticking our collective heads in the sand, & going along to get along (see unidentified race promoter with Florida roots and past event in Worcester, MA for an object example). As controversial as this stance might be, I think that Gary does us all a service. Even when I don't necessarily agree with all of his viewpoints.

    Herein lies the rub(s): we need the 'for profit' promoters. They do provide a necessary service, &, as much as the 'serious' (read: really fast) runners might rail against them, they are here to stay, & I think that any reasonable person could fairly state that these races have indeed provided a pretty decent vehicle to get folks up out of the Barca-lounger & into something approximating a healthy lifestyle. I've done--& continue to do--these type of events myself, & I don't apologize. To be fair, though, I did recently initiate a Facebook rant against the prospect of getting shot with dye as I lumber through a 5K; I don't necessarily have an issue with the concept, it's just that oxygen is hard enough for my 200-odd lbs to come by without having a double handful of pink cornstarch to contend with, & I'm not really sure why I should pay $47 for the possibility of asphyxiation. But, I digress....in summation, it's a service, a business, & the promoters do deserve to make a fair (whatever that means) profit. Given the much-publicized running 'boom' in full force in this country, I actually kind of admire their business acumen--a classic case of carpe diem. I admire more the fact that I can walk away if the price segues into the absurd. Totally agree with Gary here.

    The second point, re the "charity gala" aspect of races sits squarely in the space of triumph of emotion over logic. Yes, race "A" is about $10 high for a 5K on city roads (ie. "requiring more municipal services than a very good race which runs through a Brockton park...") right now. I don't dispute that. It's just that I am not entirely sure that I can be too analytical about a charity event. Maybe I pay the extra $10, & hope that the karma comes back to me. Maybe I can't put an exact dollar figure on goodwill. And, yes, maybe I am a dope for it. It's especially a tough gig for running clubs, as many are viewed (& rightly so) as not only a vehicle for we who like to aerobically torture ourselves, but as a valued component of the local community. One of the key precepts of my Worcester-based running club--built into their very by-laws, mind you--is service to the community. When viewed through this lens, perhaps the reasoning for club support becomes more apparent.

    And, finally, my friend: aren't we all ATMs? It just ain't the runners; take a look at your mail, or answer your phone during the dinner hour. Everyone's looking for a donation. Races are merely another vehicle.

    Having said all that--somewhat coherently, I hope--I again thank you for this coming up with this blog, & for the random thoughts it has inspired. Keep on keepin' on......

    Jack (whoops, I meant anonymous....)

  3. Anonymous (whoops, I mean Jack!),

    Great comments! Thanks for taking the time to add to this debate!

    I've nothing against profit (I try to make it every day!) or charity (my soul needs feeding too!). There are some really good honest for-profit promoters around here that I can think of in an instant. They provide a great service at a fair price, and there's nothing wrong with them eating dinner and taking a cruise now and then off the proceeds. And as you say, community service is part of what we do as running clubs. And also as you say, we're all targets all the time. I'm relieved that Rachel no longer calls me from Card Services, but her friends seem to have found my number now. At the end of the day, it's all a matter of degree and a very gray area. We all lower our standars and eat fast food now and then (at least that's cheap) but it will serve our sport for all of us to look to intent and attitude when selecting where we spend our drachmas. And you don't have to be a fast runner to take that approach (at the moment, enough things on me hurt that I am not at all fast...!). I'm foreseeing the hundred-dollar charity 5K, and just saying no.

    Love the debate, let the games begin!

  4. I cannot and will not ever consider you not fast! As a purely recreational runner that dreams of running a full in 4:45, but who may never achieve it, I'll chime in here. I enjoy running races that also have the objective to raise funds for charity. But I've run too many that could care less about the runners once the race fee has been collected. These become "one and done" races that will never be repeated. I've become more selective now. Would rather just run the races that provide a good experience, even for those of us in the last 1/3 of the pack. And then make donations to charities I feel strongly about. I am a member of the same running club, and was not impressed with the response you received to your comments on this topic there. At times we must go our own way, and if that doesn't match the party line so be it. You have my respect, as you have always treated even us all with respect, regardless of our running talent, or lack thereof. Keep raising the issues, anf encouraging individual though v groupthink.


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